In between bouts of trying to finish a senior thesis, ensure I walk at graduation and find one of those things that people call “jobs,” I’ve been letting loose by playing Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator. Developed by video game luminaries Game Grumps, Dream Daddy allows the user to play as a single dad who has to woo the other fathers in his cul-de-sac while navigating parenting. It is, to put it lightly, the best damn game of any kind that I have ever played in my until now not-fully-actualized life.
I’m usually late to the party on new computer games, and started playing Dream Daddy months after most fans freaked out around its July 2017 release date. Simply put, the game feels like it was uniquely written for me. (Though I think it’s a horoscopes-always-seem-applicable deal because most people on Internet forums feel the same way.) One dad is a bit too into WWE. He also loves cheese plates. Another only barely manages to suppress his need to make everything into a competition. And, of course, they all tell tons of dad jokes. It’s like I’m hanging out with a bunch of slightly altered clones.
In one scene, Mat — the studly dad who runs a music pun-filled coffee shop — took my character on a date to a record store. He decided to buy Greatest Hits by Remo Drive and Swear I’m Good at This by Diet Cig. I almost cried — he even likes Remo Drive! In another scene Mat invited my character to a PUP concert, and sure enough PUP — who are currently one of my favorite bands — were rendered in Dream Daddy art in the game.
Up-to-date punk references are only one of the reasons why players love Dream Daddy. The game has also been (rightfully so) commended for giving players the ability to fall in love with daddies of various ethnicities, gender identities, body types and sexualities. Between the witty dialogue, pastel color scheme and idyllic, smart-planned setting, it isn’t a stretch to say that Dream Daddy takes place in a utopia.
But as I kept playing, I started to feel suspicious. The game was good. Almost too good. None of the characters had views that I disagreed with, mostly because none of them had any controversial views. Nearly every NPC shyly confessed that they were awkward and bad at talking to people even though they’re all written to be incredibly well-spoken and charismatic. Even Robert, the knife-wielding, whiskey-drinking, probably-a-murderer daddy has a secret love for Italian neo-realist cinema. I’ve played for a few hours over a series of days, and only two daddies have done anything even remotely grating. Brian won’t stop bragging about his daughter Daisy (understandable as she is supposed to be brilliant) and Robert talks in the movie theater (he justifies it by pointing out that the movie was mainstream trash). Oh, and Robert also likes pineapple on his pizza.
All of the characters possess a slight edge, but no so much so to actually introduce any elements of danger. In one scene, Mat and I chose to buy weed and go back to his place and smoke while listening to records. When we tried to light up — surprise! That punk kid Lucien had sold us a bag of oregano. We don’t need to be stoned to enjoy a good record, Mat pointed out, and we arrived back to safety. The game established that we were cool enough to smoke weed (but we didn’t actually have to during gameplay).
To be fair, some amount of the safety and escapism that I feel while playing Dream Daddy was thanks to my own actions. I’ve always struggled with the incessant anxiety that I must impress and please everyone all of the time. Some nights, I lay awake in bed trying to figure out if I said “How’s it going?” weirdly at 1:17 pm that day. The problem is that Dream Daddy systematizes the whole process.
The game primarily operates off of decision trees that provide the player with three possible things to say to an NPC. The NPC’s response is immediate and tangible. If the player really strikes a chord with them, an aura of hearts and eggplant emojis (if you don’t get the symbolism, don’t worry about it) blooms around them. If the response is straight up the middle, nothing happens. And, oh god, if the player goofs up and annoys the NPC, a haze of unnerving black, inky orbs shoots out from them and their complexion falls.
My obsession with impressing everyone apparently extends to virtual characters, because whenever I’m hit with a black haze in Dream Daddy, I go full adrenaline rush and immediately quit to the title screen without saving so I can re-do the whole conversation and not be such a gosh-darn buffoon. After playing Dream Daddy a bit, I was bolstered by a false confidence. It turns out that I am incredibly charming and self-assured when I can literally wind back time and re-do any awkward social interaction.
By this point, I bet you’re thinking, ‘Jesus, dude, it’s just a dating sim, did you really take it this seriously?’ And the answer is: Yes I absolutely did and also I learned a lot about myself in the process. Video games are — for me, at least — a potent source of escapism. I’m not an unproductive, procrastination-prone undergrad, I’m a hearty farmer in Stardew Valley. I’m not sheltered in an ivory tower, I’m making split-second moral decisions as a border clerk in Papers, Please.
But I’ve learned that escapism is safely enjoyed in moderate doses. The fact of the matter is that, as an anxious, often insecure person, Dream Daddy offers me a dream superpower: The ability to re-do any interaction I’m not 100 percent satisfied with. But with great power comes great responsibility and whatnot. I found that my obsessive quitting and replaying ultimately left me feeling empty; sure I got higher scores, but I didn’t really earn them. So for now I’ll focus more on valuing my awkward, unsure real life and save the suave, coiffed alter-ego for when I need a virtual reprieve.
Shay Collins is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.